Science marches on, and some of it marches right into a happy country that unites Alice’s Wonderland to Orwell’s 1984. The latest scientific finding from Dartmouth discloses a test that claims to be able to detect hidden “racism.”
The test’s uses are obvious enough, and one has already been proposed—to screen police recruits to see if they’re “biased.”
You could change the course of history with this gadget.
The problem is that the test is probably voodoo pure and simple—more simple than pure, as a matter of fact.
The Boston Globe recently reported on an article in the scientific journal Nature Neuroscience that describes the racism test:
“According to the findings, the more biased people are, the more their brain power is taxed by contact with someone of another race, as they struggle not to say or do anything offensive. The effect is so strong, the team found, that even a five-minute conversation with a black person left some of the white subjects unable to perform well on a test of cognitive ability.”
“Just having a prejudice makes you stupider,” beams John Gabrieli, a psychology professor at Stanford who was not involved in the research. “It is really interesting.”
[Bias taxes brain, research finds, By Gareth Cook, Boston Globe, November 17, 2003]
It is indeed really interesting, not least because what it probably proves is that just being a psychologist makes you stupider.
Here’s how the “racism test” works.
First, students are given what’s known as an “Implicit Association Test” that’s supposed to show how unconsciously biased you are. The students (always white apparently) are asked to push a button for words with “positive” associations like “beauty” and a different button for “a common first name” for a white person like “Nancy.”
In the second session, they’re given names “more common for a black person, such as ‘Tyrone’. The greater the difference between the reaction times in the two sessions, the more the person has trouble associating black names with positive concepts.”
Therefore, he must harbor “racist” attitudes.
Give me a break already.
Aside from the test’s obvious flaws (who says which names are “white” or “black” and which words are “positive”; how do you know how different students associate such names, etc.), the test seems to be given only to white students.
Of course it’s unthinkable that blacks or non-whites might harbor “racial biases” toward whites. But of course again that’s not the real purpose of the test, is it?
Then there’s the real breakthrough, the magnetic resonance imaging test that detects “racism.” [An fMRI investigation of the impact of interracial contact on executive function, Richeson et al, Nature Neuroscience, December 2003 Volume 6 Number 12]
“Each student was then shown a series of photographs, some of white males and some of black males. The more biased a student was, the more the team saw a certain area of their brain activate, an area associated with ‘executive control,’ conscious efforts to direct thinking.”
This, said one of the Einsteins behind the research, Dartmouth’s Jennifer Richeson, [email her] “is a sign the brain is struggling not to think inappropriate thoughts.”
So let’s say the test is valid and the MRI really shows something about “attitudes.” What does it show?
What Professor Richeson thinks it shows is “a dispiriting portrait of the state of the nation’s race relations … even among the well-educated, well-meaning Dartmouth undergraduates whom the scientists studied.” Indeed.
“I think people are getting caught in this trap where they are trying not to do the wrong thing, rather than trying to act natural,” she told the Globe.
But what the test shows (maybe) is that “well-educated, well-meaning Dartmouth undergraduates” have problems “as they struggle not to say or do anything offensive” when dealing with blacks.
Maybe this is “racism.” My own bet is that it’s fear and guilt.
In any case, it’s also interesting that the students’ brain power is taxed by trying not to offend blacks—and that’s considered proof of racial bias.
Personally, I hope the “Racism Detector” turns out to be reliable.
Instead of Bill Clinton and Howard Dean and the well-educated, well-meaning young chickens at Dartmouth who will soon turn into people like them, I want to use the gadget on such apostles of equality as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to find out how much their “brain power is taxed by contact with someone of another race.”
I’ll bet the results would be fascinating.
For some reason, nobody at Dartmouth seems to have thought of that.